Charles Krupa / AP
Shark week may never be the same again: Two Australian states – Queensland and New South Wales – have softened their tone when it comes to the language used to report shark attacks, opting instead for a little more nuance.
From now on, sharks will “bite”, not “attack”, and when humans have a less than ideal encounter with them, this will be referred to as an “encounter” or “incident”.
In case you were wondering if this is another example of a government bowing to political correctness, it turns out that states are simply aligning with scientific thought on the subject.
“[It] helps dispel the inherent assumptions that sharks are voracious and stupid man-eating monsters, ”Leonardo Guida, shark researcher at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, recently told the Sydney Morning Herald.
The change comes in two states where “attacks” are most common
Queensland and New South Wales have seen the highest number of reported shark “attacks” in Australia since the year 1700, according to data compiled by the Florida Museum’s “International Shark Attack Record”.
At a shark symposium in May, a senior Queensland official said the state government preferred to use “bites” rather than “attacks.” The state Department of Agriculture and Fisheries was cited by the Herald as saying that although there are “no formal guidelines” on how to describe such situations, “some people may just have a personal preference for the language they use.”
In New South Wales, the Public Information Department said it was “respectful that every incident is best described by the person involved,” a spokeswoman said, according to the newspaper.
Researchers say language can make it harder to protect endangered species
Christopher Pepin-Neff, Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney who studied the language used around shark encounters, notes that before the 1930s in Australia, they were described as “shark accidents”.
In a 2011 article in Slate, Pepin-Neff said he thought it was time to withdraw the phrase “shark attack”.
“Such language creates a one-dimensional perception of these events and makes it more difficult to protect endangered shark species. After all, why bother about an animal that wants to eat us? he wrote.
Shark Trust, a UK-based organization dedicated to “saving the future of sharks through positive change,” says media reports of shark bite incidents “use very emotional language, often misleading ”.
“[S]This language can also “criminalize” sharks in the public mind, with terms such as “man-eater” or “rogue shark” mistakenly implying an intention to target or harm humans. “
The suggested language change sparked some setback: a person whose profile indicates they are based in the Australian town of Darwin tweeted: “They say sharks that bite humans mistakenly think you are some type of seal or fish. Unfortunately, too many people in Australia and around the world have lost their lives due to shark mistakes . Meanwhile, getting bitten on your arm by a shark will always feel like an ‘attack’ to me. “
No matter what you call it, “bites” are extremely rare
Sharks killed 10 people around the world in 2020, in what was considered an exceptionally deadly year for shark attacks.
The vast majority of human-shark encounters have a much happier ending – at least for humans – scientists say. And the lifetime risk of dying from a shark is far lower than that of just about anything you can imagine (including, yes, far lower than being killed by lightning).
Regardless, of the more than 500 species of sharks, only about 30 “have ever attacked a human,” according to the Florida Museum.
Overall, the United States has more shark encounters than Australia, with Florida leading the list of states, followed by Hawaii and California.
While the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission still calls them “shark attacks” on its website, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources both call them “incidents”.